Iceman Cometh Challenge on 35mm Film

The Biggest Single-Day Mountain Bike Race in the U.S.

The saying goes,”If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” In northern Michigan that weather could mean a 40-degree temperature fluctuation, rain, sun, snow…all of it, in one day. Add a 29-mile course of Michigan trails then combine thousands of riders and you have the Iceman Cometh Challenge, the biggest single-day mountain bike race in the U.S.

For 30 years the event has been taking place with the course always starting in Kalkaska, Mich. before meandering through woods toward the finish line in Traverse City, Mich at the Timber Ridge RV and Recreation Resort. The finish line for this event is two blocks from the house I grew up in. I’ll never forget waking up and seeing cars parked in front of my house; it was then that I knew this event was big.

Grand Traverse County, Mich.
Camera: Canon 1V

Due to COVID-19, the race was cancelled this year but here’s to it returning next year. These pictures are from last year when the race was self-assigned.

The race always takes place on the first Saturday of November; participants can wake up to dry trails or snow-covered trails. For years I’d cover the event by driving to the starting line and photographing racers preparing before being sent off in their assigned waves, beginning at 9:00 a.m. With racers on the trail and almost everyone finished, finishing or close to finishing; the professional riders would start in the afternoon. Because of this, I’d miss out on the pro riders starting and riding, I’d only see them when they finished.

Grand Traverse County, Mich.
Camera: Canon 1V

Since this particular year’s Iceman coverage was completely up to me, I waited until the afternoon to photograph the pro riders in hopes of capturing some portraits of them before the race and some action shots later, on 35mm film.

Kalkaska, Mich.
Camera: Canon 1V

Upon arrival to the Iceman Cometh starting line, most of the professionals were making the pro decision of waiting in their heated cars before cycling 29 miles in the cold. As they trickled out to ready themselves, and their gear, I took the opportunity to introduce myself and approach some strangers for some portraits. Everyone was extremely agreeable and kind.

The light was as perfect as light can get: soft diffused light from a sky-wide blanket of thick clouds just enough sun reaching through to provide some warmth to the light.

Photographing Strangers: Always Worth It

It’s always uncomfortable approaching strangers to ask for a portrait. Especially on this day. With professionals, it’s tough to tell if they’re going to be so focused on the day and their mission of winning, it’s easy to talk one’s self out of asking for a picture. Here’s the thing though: You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Kalkaska, Mich.
Camera: Canon 1V

There have been so many people who’ve agreed to a portrait than who’ve not agreed. So, it’s worth it. On this day, no one refused a portrait. I was serious about my objective and they could understand and accept it. It was a mutual respect.

After photographing portraits, I made my way toward some trail sections to capture some action. My lens for this entire day’s shoot was a 50mm and I’ll tell you what, that’s a versatile lens. I’ve written it before but if you can muster some creativity and energy (for zooming—using feet of course), the 50mm lens is all you need.

Grand Traverse County, Mich.
Camera: Canon 1V

When the day was done and the film was correctly processed, scanned and shipped back, I was reassured about my decision to use film for the portraits and action photos. Specifically for the portraits—a story can be told in one portrait based on the person, the eyes and the setting. I was more than happy with the three portraits I’d made. The racer in the grey vest ended up winning the men’s division of the race.

Kalkaska, MI
Camera: Canon 1V

The takeaway from this post is that whatever event or non-event you’re photographing, take the time to make some portraits, at least one; you’ll be glad you did and your photos will only improve with practice and experience.

10 thoughts on “Iceman Cometh Challenge on 35mm Film”

  1. I appreciate the nudge. My camera is a pretty wimpy thing, so I am hesitant to make those kinds of requests. It would be like coming up to someone with a camcorder and saying I’d like to include them in my movie. You make an excellent point about how there’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain. I’ll have to give this a try next time I’m in a friendly placee.

    1. An additional tip for photographing portraits of strangers to have a reason as to why you’d like to make their portrait, in case the potential subject asks. It can be something as simple as,”I like your style and the light is nice.” If you’re honest, genuine and quick, your chances of success with a willing participant will increase. Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions about it!

      1. They paused, they giggled, they said yes. I didn’t quite ask for a portrait, just “can I include you in my pictures”, but it was a start. Thanks for the inspiration.

        1. That’s excellent! “Can I include you…” is a great way to phrase your photographic request. It’s calming and cool. it’s also how I very frequently ask for portraits or pictures. Well done!

  2. This post really resonated with me on a lot of levels. When I first started my career in journalism. I was not the only full-time staff reporter a set of weekly papers, I was the photographer too. I remember the hesitance in those early days. Snapping a candid and then walking up timidly to ask for their name. I quickly realized that when you have a purpose people are generally pretty reasonable. I’ve only occasionally come across someone who has gotten upset about their photo being taken. Usually, given the chance to explain myself, they’ve relented and given their name.

    While I always preferred candids, largely because It was an excuse to spend slow afternoons following people around on the job, I also shot a lot of portraits. The same rules always applied.

    Thanks for sharing this post. Hopefully, it will inspire others to shoot a few portraits wherever they go.

    1. Thanks for sharing your journalism experiences! Wow, to be a full-time reporter AND photographer…that’s all in. You’re absolutely correct about having a much more pleasant encounter when you have a sense of purpose. Spot on.
      Approaching strangers is something I didn’t ever think would become easier. The funny thing is though, it did.
      Thank you, Tobias, for your message!

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